We're living in a literal and figurative season where people are often waxing nostalgic over the "good old days." Holiday gatherings yield family stories that make one wish that somehow we could be back at Grandma's house again because it was, apparently, so wonderful. World financial markets prompt the same kinds of recollections of the past as well as--for some--grandly optimistic outlooks for a "new" kind future.
You may be either nodding or shaking your head in agreement or disagreement. Exactly.
"Looking at the world through rose-colored glasses" is a saying that we hear often. Many people look at things optimistically, regardless of the circumstances. However, according to a psychological study our views on past and future happiness change according to where we are in our lives.
Dr. Margie Lachman and colleagues found that younger and middle-aged people tend to underestimate their past happiness and to overestimate their future happiness - probably because to do so helps motivate them to strive for a better life. This data came from a survey of over 3000 American adults conducted twice and spaced nine years apart.
Age Changes Outlook
Older people (aged over 65) were more accurate in recalling their past and future life satisfaction. This probably reflected the need to accept their life as it had been lived, combined with their greater understanding of the human capacity to adjust emotionally to whatever life throws our way. Indeed, in line with the predictions of the older participants, most people's life satisfaction, in this study and others, actually changes very little through the years (in Western democracies, at least).
Lachman's study team also looked at how adaptive it was for people to have either rose-tinted or darkly clouded views of their past and future. The results showed that at whatever age, it is beneficial to have a more realistic view of the past and future. Those participants who more accurately perceived their past and future happiness tended to suffer less depression and enjoy better health.
"The young have an illusion of continued improvement, seeing the past as worse than it really was and the future as better than it turns out to be," the researchers said. "This illusion is consistent with their motivational orientation toward continued growth and gains."
While the future belongs to the young, the absence of older workers could be a recipe for unrealistic decision-making. Adding reality and experience to idealism and energy doesn't equal "resistance to change;"it adds a much-needed dimension to decisions and execution that may provide a real pathway to move ideas and products forward.
During the past few years we've seen the headlines for Talent Wars, Saving Institutional Knowledge and Learning, and Diversity. My experience so far with recent layoffs has been that workers nearing retirement are being offered packages to accelerate their decisions. I understand the legal and financial benefits of such a strategy to the corporations involved. However, when the corporate sun starts shining brightly again, I wonder if the decision-making maturity and collective knowledge of these newly "retired" workers will be irreplaceable and actually prompt a lengthening of the recovery process.
Then, who ya gonna call: Ghostbusters?
For more on the research cited here:
Margie E. Lachman, Christina Röcke, Christopher Rosnick, Carol D. Ryff (2008). Realism and Illusion in Americans' Temporal Views of Their Life Satisfaction: Age Differences in Reconstructing the Past and Anticipating the Future Psychological Science, 19 (9), 889-897 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02173.x